Sunday National Championship Notebook: The head coaches take the podium


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Dabo Swinney speaks to the media Sunday
Dabo Swinney speaks to the media Sunday

SAN JOSE, CA – Just when you think everything that can be said has been said, it’s time for the pregame press conference with the head coaches.

Alabama’s Nick Saban and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney met with the media in a ballroom at the Marriott in San Jose Sunday morning to discuss Monday’s National Championship Game at Levi’s Stadium. Neither coach offered much in the way of new information and was extremely complimentary of the other program.

“When you play in a game like this, you expect to play against a great team, and Clemson is all of that,” Saban said. “Our players are certainly looking forward to the challenge of playing against a really, really good team. I'm really proud of our team and actually love what our team has been able to overcome and do this year. They've worked hard and really had a tough row to hoe to get here, and we certainly appreciate all their effort, togetherness and things that they've done to be able to have this opportunity.”

Swinney said the Tigers are excited about a shot at the best team in the country.

“Really excited about the opportunity to compete against the best team in the country on the highest stage,” Swinney said. “This is what we all set out to do, 130 teams, and you have two teams that have an opportunity to compete on this stage, and we're thankful and blessed to have this moment.

“Alabama has been an unbelievable champion, and Coach Saban and the consistency that they've had is remarkable. Not surprised at all to see them sitting back here. But really proud of our team and how we've performed all year long. Incredible focus. This team is blessed with great leadership and just a great group of young people that have competed every single week to get to this point. I have no doubt it'll be a heck of a ballgame tomorrow night, two great teams that both want to win, so this is what we're all here for.”

Both coaches said their programs play to a certain standard that allows for success at the highest levels.

“I think what we try to get our players to do is play to a standard, be the best version of themselves,” Saban said. “I oftentimes get on our players, even when we win and people don't totally understand that, because regardless of what the scoreboard says, how did you really perform? Did you perform to your best of your ability? Did you create the best value for yourself and for the team by the way you execute the discipline that you played with, how you were able to focus on the next play, not get frustrated with something that was difficult for you? To be a great competitor, you've got to overcome adversity.

“All these things create an internal standard that we're trying to get players to play to that not necessarily is dictated by the score, who you're playing against, but it's about your level of performance and the standard that you play to. Oftentimes I use the example of when I was an NFL coach, they would make a highlight tape for me of a player when we were looking at him for the draft, and all that I was looking at was the plays that he played. I didn't really know what the score was in the game, who they were playing against necessarily, what the circumstances were. I was just evaluating how that guy played on those plays that he was in the game.”

Swinney said the coaching staff makes sure that the players treat each game as the biggest game of the year.

“Well, I think a couple of things. One, we're the same. There's a winning performance at every position. We're not asking them to be perfect, but there is a winning performance at each position,” Swinney said. “If you're a wideout, that winning grade for us is 85 percent. If you're a linebacker, it's 80 percent. If you're a D-lineman, it's 75 – we have a grade. We make a big deal out of that. It's not who we play, it's how we play, and that's what we talk about.

“And then the other thing is, so accountability to that winning performance, number one, and then the other thing is we make every game the biggest game of the year. People don't like to hear that during the week, but if you don't have that mindset, then that creeps in. Fans have that mindset. They look at the schedule, and they go, oh, well, you're playing Eastaboga State this week, well, now we don't have to practice hard. Oh, we're playing Alabama this week, okay, let's really meet, let's really practice hard.
And if that's your culture, then you're going to be like this all the time. But when you make every game the biggest game of the year, and in college football, it is the biggest game of the year.”

Swinney then went on to explain he is against expanding the playoffs.

“Everybody wants to expand these playoffs. We've had a playoff since September. Every game has been a playoff game to get to this point,” Swinney said. “Every game. If we'd have lost to whoever, we're probably not here. If we had lost to Pitt in the ACC Championship, we're not here. If we had lost to South Carolina we're not here. Every game is a playoff game. And so for our team, we truly create that focus and that standard of performance and guys taking pride.

“It doesn't matter who we play; how did you play? And we have a grade and accountability, and so now all of a sudden you don't really get caught up in the logo of the team that you're playing. You just try to play the very best that you can. And so when you get in these moments, whether it's a huge game late in the season, both teams are undefeated, a lot on the line, whatever, it's just the next big moment, because every week has been a huge moment. So that's a mindset that you have to create, and you've got to get the young people to buy into and the coaches to buy into, and that tone is set from the head coach.”

Each coach was asked if they can take anything they can use from watching the other program.

Dabo Swinney gestures during Sunday's press conference

“Well, I have a tremendous amount of respect for what and how they do things at Clemson. They do a great job of recruiting,” Saban said. “They do a great job of developing their players, and likewise, that's what we try to do in our program in terms of we want to help guys be more successful in life because they were involved in the program, whether it's through personal development, making sure they graduate, develop careers off the field, help them in career development, be the best version of themselves, see if they can have a career as a football player.

“And I guess there's probably more than one way to do that. But we try to do it with a great staff of people who are interested in creating a culture of accountability for players in terms of their personal behavior, how they approach academics, how they approach what they try to do in football, and that has helped us, and we're constantly trying to evaluate other successful programs, including Clemson's, to see if they're doing something that might help us improve what we do to help our players be more successful.”

Swinney detailed Alabama’s success.

“You're talking about a program that I have a deep love and respect for, always have, always will, and a coach that's – I mean, he's won six National Championships and the level of consistency is a model and an aspiration for every program,” Swinney said. “So for me, I think a couple things: One, how he has just been himself, regardless of what people think or say or whatever. He's been himself, and he's stuck to the things that he believes in, and that's a lesson for me, to be myself and to be convicted in my beliefs and how I think that I should run the program. But he's very detailed.

“We're very detailed in how we do things. And I think from a program standpoint when he got to Alabama, how he modernized the program, infrastructure-wise, to create an environment as he said, that's conducive to helping the young players have a great experience and to develop as a person and a player. And there are resources involved with that, and I think that that's something that Coach Saban changed in college football, quite frankly.”


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